How a low-cost mailer helped prevent undermatching

Simply telling qualified low-income students that they should apply to a prestigious college—and that substantial financial aid awaits—may help elite institutions increase their racial and economic diversity, according to a new working paper. The research, from Susan Dynarski, an economist at the University of Michigan; C.J. Libassi, a senior policy research analyst at College Board; Katherine Michelmore, an assistant professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University; and Stephanie Owen, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan details a low-cost, targeted outreach effort that encouraged more low-income students to apply to the University of Michigan.

The power of a colorful, personalized letter

As noted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, many high-achieving low-income students hesitate to apply to the nation’s best schools, believing that the cost is out of reach or their academic record won’t stack up. They focus instead on less-competitive institutions, schools that tend to have lower graduation rates and fewer resources—a phenomenon known as “undermatching.”

To prevent the misperceptions that drive undermatching, the scientists sent colorful, personalized packets to 1,932 low-income, high-achieving students in Michigan, promising that if they applied and were admitted to the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, they would be awarded a scholarship covering the entire cost of U-M tuition and fees for four years—even if they didn’t complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The students’ parents or principal received a similar letter a few weeks later. The mailers—which cost less than $10 each—weren’t announcing anything new, The New York Times points out; the vast majority of recipients would have qualified for admission and the scholarship even without the letter.

But the increased awareness had a powerful effect: 67 percent applied to the University of Michigan, compared with 26 percent of a control group of similarly qualified students who did not receive the packets. In addition, 27 percent of the letter recipients ultimately enrolled at the University of Michigan, compared with 12 percent of the control group. Moreover, the analysis says “one-quarter of the enrollment effect…is driven by students who would not have attended any college in the absence of the [letter].”

‘Why aren’t we doing this more?’

According to The Times, the findings have sparked other colleges to consider launching similar programs. “Why aren’t we doing this more?” questioned Katharine Strunk of Michigan State.

The Atlantic notes that the Michigan findings are further reinforced by a new Texas study affirming the power of a guarantee for low-income students. For the research, public policy professors used test score data to explore whether Texas students at public high schools were less likely to undermatch under the Texas 10 percent plan, a guaranteed-admissions program that automatically admits the top 10 percent of graduates in every Texas public high school class into any public college or university in the state. They found that the policy effectively encouraged high-performing, low-income students to apply to and enroll at Texas’s flagship universities.

“In general, policies that can increase transparency about college admissions process…are likely to help resolve mismatch problems,” the authors wrote.

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